Mao’s War on Sparrows

In 1958 the People’s Republic of China launched the “Great Leap Forward”, which was intended to modernize the country and make it a world power. As part of this program, Mao Zedong also began a war against the Eurasian Sparrow. It ended in disaster.

“Four Pests” propaganda poster         photo from WikiCommons

When Mao Zedong’s Communist Party took over China in 1949, the nation was a poor undeveloped rural backwater. But Mao had dreams of making China a world superpower, and in 1957, in his Second Five Year Plan, he proposed a massive effort to move much of the population out of the rural farms, industrialize the economy, and modernize the country almost overnight. It was known as the “Great Leap Forward”.

At this time, China was a nation of over 600 million people, most of whom lived in simple rural villages—and all of them were mobilized for the effort. The entire countryside was reorganized. People were moved together into huge “communes”, which were intended to be self-sufficient units that could grow their own food and provide their own industrial products. In accordance with Mao’s strict ideology, everything in the commune was “collectivized”—all the land was worked by everyone, the cows and pigs were gathered into common herds, and even pots and pans were confiscated and used to set up communal kitchens. To boost industrial output, makeshift steel furnaces were built in each commune, and a whole slew of factories and workshops were built for the production of everything from shoes to tractors.

Another portion of the Great Leap program was dubbed the “Four Pests Campaign”. This was a massive coordinated effort, nationwide, to exterminate the “four pests”: mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. The first three of these animals were obvious targets—they spread diseases such as malaria and plague. The sparrow was targeted for a different reason.

The Eurasian Sparrow, Passer montanus, is a common forest bird found from Spain to Japan. It is a close cousin to the more urban European House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, which is now a familiar invader in North American cities.

If China were to develop a significant industrial sector, it would have to shift a large number of peasant farmers away from farming, and to make up for this, Mao knew, he would have to increase food production in order to feed all these new industrial workers. So he imposed a strict regimen which would, he hoped, boost the production of rice and other foods. Part of this program was an effort to eliminate the Eurasian Sparrows which, he assumed, were eating a significant portion of the grain harvest. By removing the birds, Mao hoped, he could boost agricultural yields.

And so the “Great Leap Forward” began with much fanfare and enthusiasm. Entire forests were cut down to make room for huge rural “communes”. New fields were plowed and planted with rice and wheat. Former farmers were relocated to become industrial workers, as homemade steel furnaces were set up to produce materials and workshops were constructed on the communes. Theoretically, every commune was capable of producing all of the consumer and manufacturing products that it needed. Everyone was set a quota of work which they were expected to meet (and constant propaganda posters exhorted everyone to “exceed the plan”).

As part of the “Four Pests” campaign, entire provinces were drenched in insecticides to eliminate mosquitoes and flies. Poison baits were set out everywhere to combat the rats and sparrows, and school children were recruited to club any survivors and to find and destroy nestlings and eggs. Within a year, rats were rare and the Eurasian Sparrow, once common, was almost extinct within China.

But despite the best hopes and intentions, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” did not propel the People’s Republic into the modern 20th century: instead, it was an ecological and human disaster. The crude “backyard steel smelters” run by inexperienced “steel workers” were incapable of turning out a quality material, and in some places commune workers, desperate to avoid trouble for not meeting their quotas, were melting down their own farm tools to “produce” enough steel.

Many of the agricultural techniques that Mao depended on to increase the food supply had come from the Soviet Union, where the pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko had already destroyed Russian food production and provoked widespread famines. In China, where Mao was also willing to base his methods on ideological purity rather than on reality, the results were the same: there were massive crop failures and shortages. These in turn were hidden and covered up by regional Party officials who feared what would happen if they failed to meet the Five-Year Plan, and who therefore reported exaggerated supplies instead. As a result, not only did the central government in Beijing fail to provide food to areas that in reality had desperate shortages, but even as people starved China increased the amount of grain that it sold abroad, in order to gain more foreign exchange for the purchase of materials it could not produce itself.

And the war against the Eurasian Sparrow added to the problem. Mao, like most rural farmers, had always just assumed that the birds were having a significant impact on the grain supply by eating the crops, and that killing the birds would therefore lead to increased yields. But nobody had ever bothered to study the bird’s diet or ecology, and when state-employed biologists in Beijing began to look at the piles of corpses of killed sparrows from the Four Pests campaign, they found something disturbing: the birds had only a small amount of grain in their stomachs. The sparrows, it turned out, did feed on grain from the fields, but were also feeding on insects—and the amount of harmful bugs they consumed far outweighed the amount of grain they were eating (especially in spring when they were feeding large numbers of insects to their nestlings). The birds were therefore a significant check on the population of pests that did eat the grain.

Already, the effects of this were being seen. Within a year, as the Eurasian Sparrows all but disappeared, there was a corresponding increase in the number of locusts, beetles and other agricultural pests. Combined with all the other ecological and political mistakes that had been made by Mao, it was lethal. Actual agricultural production plummeted by some 70% within two years, and the resulting famine swept across China, killing an estimated 35 to 45 million people.

The “Great Leap Forward” had been intended as a five-year program. But by 1958 its effects were already so disastrous that it was quietly dropped. The “Four Pests” program was also modified: now the “sparrow” was replaced by the “bedbug”. But it was already too late. The damage had already been done. The “Great Leap Forward” remains the single largest ecological disaster ever in human history, caused by political hubris, ideological rigidity, and lack of understanding of basic ecology.



7 thoughts on “Mao’s War on Sparrows”

  1. Lysenko’s reach was long and destructive. It’s the perfect example of what happens when a society censors the teaching of evolution but of course Certain IDiots portray Lysenko as a “Darwinist.” (The abysmal book Evolution 2.0 was the most recent offender.)
    Strange question: Is this why, in the Monty Python Communist Quiz sketch, Mao correctly answers a question with the song “Sing, Little Birdie”? I have been trying to figure out this inside joke and I assumed it was a song he allowed, or hated.

    1. Sadly, there have been a LOT of societies that tried to replace science with their favorite religious or political ideology. From the Catholic Church and Galileo to the USSR and Lysenko. All of them failed utterly.

      And lest we Americans get too smug, we are doing the same thing right now–one of our major political parties is entirely anti-science, and denies reality on everything from evolution to global warming. It always ends at the same place. Always.

      1. Thank you both! I remember scratching my head at the change to “Great Balls of Fire.” And we Americans sure have nothing to be smug about these days. At least the ID crowd has been quiet (for now…good ole Dr. Dr. Dembski went into Instructional Design, bwa ha) but now there’s a wider assortment of dingdongs in the media.

    2. I think — because “Sing, Little Birdie” had been the UK’s Eurovision entry in 1959 — it was just part of the incongruity joke: stumping the icons of communism with very UK-centric cultural questions (Eurovision, like football, being a huge deal in the UK).

      When performing that sketch in the U.S. (as heard on the “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” album…which I had), the question was changed to “What is Jerry Lee Lewis’s greatest hit?” (“Great Balls of Fire”) since U.S. audiences would likely have little knowledge of “Sing…”

      Some of the intent was, likely, also hearing those particular song titles spoken in faux-Mao’s exaggerated Engrish.

  2. China seems to have lurched from one absurd disaster to another under Mao (though as far as I know, he actually managed to keep the economy growing despite that).

    The Chinese seem to have learned their lesson though – nowadays they don’t seem to have much left in the way of inflexible ideology. It shows in the successes they are now achieving.

    Incidentally, the house sparrow (P. domesticus) is common here in South Africa as well, though only in towns and cities. Out in the wild it cannot compete, something for which I am grateful, because our indigenous sparrows are way cuter. 🙂

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